Orphans (1997/2000)

by Todd R. Ramlow



In the Glasgow, Scotland harbor, on a cloudy windy morning after a storm, a man’s bleeding body floats on a frail piece of wood. For all its artsy beauty, this poster image for Orphans, the writing and directing debut of actor Peter Mullan, is misleading, for it depicts perhaps the only serene moment in the film, one that interrupts the stabbing, shooting, screaming, inclement weather, and other calamities that rage on as four grown-up siblings mourn their mother’s early death.

Orphans constructs comedy from heartbreaking circumstances. It opens as three brothers, Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall), and John (Stephen McCole), and their sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) prepare for the next morning’s funeral. Between this point and the funeral ceremony, their grief grows out of control. The same night in a local bar, Michael picks a fight with another customer (Malcolm Shields) for laughing at Thomas’s mawkish song, performed in his mother’s honor. Michael is stabbed, but refuses to have his wound treated, hoping to claim compensation for it as an industrial injury at work the next morning. For the remainder of the night he roams the city, oozing blood. The others express their anger and despair in their own ways: Thomas, the eldest, keeps vigil at the church; John, a college student, sets on a mission to kill Michael’s attacker; Sheila, partially immobilized and unable to speak clearly from cerebral palsy, gets stranded on her way home and spends the night with strangers after the battery for her wheelchair dies. At a first glance, these episodes may seem odd as mourning rituals, but they seem more and more appropriate as the film proceeds to establish extremes of pain, grief, and duty as the norm for its characters.

cover art


Director: Peter Mullan
Cast: Gary Lewis, Douglas Henshall, Rosemarie Stevenson, Stephen McCole, Frank Gallagher, Alex Norton, Malcolm Shield

(The Shooting Gallery)

The film also creates extreme chaos, partly by constantly shifting attention from one protagonist to another and back, and thus illuminating each character’s perspective and predicament. John is determined to prove his manliness by shooting the man who stabbed Michael. He seeks out his verbose and embittered cousin Tanga (Frank Gallagher), who, at 35 still delivers Chinese food; together, they drive around waiting for their target to wake up, picking up a gun and bullets on the way. Thomas pays homage to his mother by stubbornly staying next to her coffin at the church even after the storm blows off its roof. Conversely, Michael sees no use in vengeance and blames his wound on his own temper. He is outraged at Thomas for letting Sheila go home alone when she leaves the church, driving off in her wheelchair; Michael then feels compelled to look for his sister, who is alive, rather than remain with his dead mother.

In the dramatic situations described above and in visual representation of an urban milieu, Mullan continues a common theme in British — and more generally U.K. — independent filmmaking, where the drudgery of working-class life provides ample material for drama. The film constantly reminds the viewer that its action unfolds against Glasgow’s industrial landscape, featuring visual expressions of the depressed economy and a Scottish working-class dialect, so distinctive that it apparently requires subtitles for U.S. audiences.

Last year, Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, in which Mullan plays the title character, depicted a romance between an unemployed recovering alcoholic and a community health worker in a tough Glasgow neighborhood. Loach (with Joe and Ladybird, Ladybird) and Mike Leigh (directing Secrets and Lies and Naked) have occasionally used comic situations to elucidate their accounts of poverty and powerlessness. Orphans is more broadly and consistently comedic, but still has several poignant scenes, for example, when the wounded Michael watches his two children asleep in the same bed during a rare nighttime visit to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment. But Orphans stands out among other contemporary films about working-class life in that humor here arises from mounting one moment of impotence, anger, and violence upon another — the four central characters themselves never laugh.

In creating the possibilities for laughter out of exasperation, Orphans is refreshingly different from recent Hollywood treatments of death, mourning, and working-class life. Still, Orphans recalls earlier, classic U.S. filmmaking: its protagonists are thrown deeper and deeper into despair, but also caught up in absurd physical humor and slapstick situations reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton comedies. In one of the funniest sequences, Michael wanders into a neighborhood bar, where an irritated bar owner picks an argument with him and locks him in the basement with several other customers. The captives manage to break free and proceed to wreak havoc in the bar, tie up its owner and shoot darts at his ass. Throughout this ruckus, Michael remains frustrated and in pain, and in the end suggests without a note of irony that his friends strike the bar owner with stones to top off the evening. Or, in another hilarious moment, Sheila, furious with Thomas for insisting that she spend the night in the church, drives her chair into her brother, causing him to lose balance and tip over a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue breaks into small pieces, and Thomas spends all night trying to put it back together with hot wax, sending Sheila off alone and crying into the night in her wheelchair. These amusing scenes blend seamlessly with moments when the film is painful to watch, as when Thomas collapses under his mother’s coffin, which he insisted on carrying to the gravesite by himself. The comedy is funny precisely because it is not presented as “relief” — the characters’ endless agony accompanies slapstick at every moment.

This peculiar mixture of grim authenticity and black humor appears to leave the viewer — or more precisely the middle-class U.S. viewer — removed from the realities depicted in the film, unsure at that point laughter is an appropriate response. Last week, the film failed to elicit much joy from a tiny audience of film enthusiasts in a small D.C. theater. The Shooting Gallery has released Orphans as part of its series of festival favorite films considered too unorthodox for mainstream U.S. distribution. These films will appear in small theaters, foregoing expensive advertising and marketing campaigns, and targeting spectators who prefer independent and foreign films to U.S. blockbusters. But my fellow Orphans spectators, very likely representative of the well-educated film-festival-loving constituency such a release is supposed to attract, did not even chuckle when John made war on a double-decker bus. One is left to wonder whether the film’s bleak humor would have found a more receptive audience if it had the benefit of television ads or extensive web promotion, directed at a wider public and indicating its tone and content. In other words, the film may have a better reception, if U.S. distribution practices were less segregated by the education, income, and presumed intelligence of movie-goers.

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